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Honoring An Act of Compassion: Military Connection

military connection: mathis

By Debbie Gregory.

Having been raised in a family with strong ties to the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corp, it was no wonder that William (Bill) Mathis spent 33 years as a career Naval Officer. He served his country with skills and leadership that led to tremendous accomplishments. But it is his humanitarian achievement that puts Mathis in the news today.

In 1979, on a blistering 100 degree day off the coast of Malaysia, the lookout on Navy cargo ship Robert E. Peary spotted a small fishing boat on the horizon. It took two days to receive permission to begin the rescue mission, and then Commander Mathis was able to order his crew to head in the small boat’s direction.

The rescuers found 448 Vietnamese refugees on the small boat, without any food or water. Mathis’s sailors rigged portable toilets and showers on the ship’s fantail and rationed water. Blankets from the bunks served as makeshift beds. Sick bay was the helicopter hangar.

The refugees had endured repeated pirate attacks. When there was nothing left for the pirates to steal, some of the girls were raped.

The retired rear admiral was recently honored in Los Angeles’s Little Saigon. Hundreds applauded him during an immigrant gathering that was covered by Vietnamese television.

“I will not forget the terror of the victims,” Mathis said. “They were dehydrated, the heat and stench unbearable. There were two pregnant ladies and a 4-day-old baby born in transit. Four days old — can you imagine?”

At the time, the rescue at sea gained worldwide attention. Due to the actions of Mathis and his crew, Congress made it mandatory that all naval officers “render assistance, aid and offer to embark” any refugees deemed to be in a life-threatening situation.

Mathis concurred. “A mariner’s first obligation is to assist if people are in distress on the high seas.”

Overwhelmed by the affection, Mathis said, “I never, ever thought the refugees would welcome me into their community and share an honor like this. What I did was so simple. Many other people would have done the same thing.”

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Honoring An Act of Compassion: Military Connection: by Debbie Gregory